It's Jackie's Neighborhood

Attention, drunks, drug runners, cactus thieves, and other enemies of Sunset Heights: Jackie Harris is looking for you. And she's got her machete.

"Prices in the Heights are up 23.9 percent in the last year and 43.5 percent over

the last five years."
-- Real estate agent quoted in the Houston Chronicle, August 12, 1998

Jackie Harris likes to tell a story.
It's about the cantina next door to where Jackie lives, in the Sunset Heights neighborhood, and the drunks that get plastered there, and the prostitutes that primp on weekend nights, and some casual drug trade, and how on one weekend night Jackie notices that people are pulling into her gravel driveway and dashing into the cantina and then leaving just as fast, buying dime bags of pot or something, she assumes -- and don't get her wrong, she's got nothing against bars or drunks or prostitution or the weed trade per se, legalize them all, as far as she's concerned -- but the point is, there are people pulling in and out of her driveway all night. This bit about the driveway, this is a simple matter of poor manners. These people are being bad neighbors, and that's what chaps Jackie Harris's ass.

"Finally, what I did about it is, I waited until happy hour, when the place was jam-packed, and I went in there with my machete."

Imagine that for a minute. You're a lone white woman, and some vaquero's raising hell on your corner, and you approach him, in a crowd of his peers, with a machete in your hand.

" 'Course that stopped 'em all and got their attention, and I said, 'Whoever is in here selling drugs, you need to start telling your customers to stop parking in front of my house, period. I don't want 'em parking in front of my house at all.'"

You've probably never done anything quite like that.
"And then after that, it all stopped. The very next day. Never again. All I know is, there was no more problem."

The story is one of many, but it's one of Jackie's faves. You can tell this, because you hear it again in conversations with Jackie's neighbors ("Have you seen her machete yet?" they ask), who tell it with minor embellishments and a palpable sense of wonder at the crazy lady on their street who is absolutely fearless in the face of just about whatever she doesn't like. The wild-eyed control freak who, not coincidentally, is a good neighbor. Unless you're up to something that Jackie thinks is bad for her neighborhood. In which case you may well get to see her homemade machete yourself.

As a story, it suggests some things about Jackie and about the Heights, one being that if you're thinking about joining the hordes of up-and-coming renovators currently driving Heights property values through the roof, you'd do well to be aware of those who came before you, those who paved your way, and why, and those who think that neighborhood security is more than just an alarm system and a chocolate lab named Bear.

You see, Jackie's been here 15 years, and she knows a little something about what we call "transitional neighborhoods" (a euphemism in the real estate world for both "dark-skinned people still live here" and "the yuppies called on their cell phones and they're headed this way").

Sunset Heights is very much a neighborhood in transition, from rundown rentals to upwardly mobile starter homes and from brown to white, and Jackie Harris, as middlewoman, is a key link in the chain. She's neither a lingering Eastern European settler nor a working-class Hispanic. She's also neither a developer nor a part of the fabled DINK family (that's "double income, no kids"). She's what comes in between, and as such, she probably has something to do, for better or for worse, with getting from what was to what will be.

And the minute you move in, Jackie's going to be more than just a link. She's going to be your neighbor, and she'll expect you to know how to behave. Because you know what? Jackie's not finished with her neighborhood yet.

"Jackie is a very colorful person. She's eccentric, you know.... And Jackie is a very strong person, a very take-charge-type person.... Are you going to print all this stuff I've been saying? It's, like, I live next door to her, okay?"

-- Rebecca Mize, Jackie's neighbor

Jackie Harris calls herself an artist, and some other people call her an artist, too. She does some commercial work on a freelance basis and is perhaps most widely known for her art cars, including the Orange Show's flagship Fruitmobile.

She is, let's say, middle-aged, and she wears dyed white hair that's looking less and less like a punkish accessory. She acts, with relative impunity, more or less like a teenager, which is to say impulsively and passionately, the indulgence of which traits is perhaps the finest of the trophies the world bestows upon you when you call yourself an artist and persuade some other people to call you that, too.

Back in the early 1980s, when "Historic Houston Heights" was little more than a gleam in a newly formed neighborhood association's eye, Jackie was living at Lawndale, the legendary arts center funded, but hardly overseen, by the University of Houston, until that institution realized what was going on -- which was that when Lawndale mounted a show, it was as likely to be four drunk guys in a band as anything you could hang on a wall. And that people like Jackie were living there.

Moving on when it became clear that Lawndale would go the way of the nickel Coke, she and art compadres Wes Hicks and Jack Massing (now one-half of the Art Guys) founded and helped colonize the Commerce Street Arts Warehouse east of downtown, which was then unimproved and abandoned and which is now part of an annual gallery crawl.

But there was a falling-out among the three -- creative differences and all that -- before Jackie could move in, and she ended up driving around blighted neighborhoods looking for cheap deals. She found a warehouse/ office space near Yale in the upper 20s just inside Loop 610. The asking rent was $600 a month, but Jackie talked the landlord down to $500. Then it rained, and water came through the roof like a fountain going the wrong way, and Jackie talked the landlord down again, this time to $350.

"Back then," says Jackie, "it was way over there. God, it's only like five miles from Montrose, but it's true, everyone thought that Montrose was where it's at, and that's where everyone lived. It was just a few people that lived over here, kinda like out in the boonies."

That was 1983, six years prior to the date Sunset Heights Civic Association President James Fanning pegs as the beginning of the area's turnaround from declining neighborhood to hip Inner Loop suburb. Perhaps coincidentally, it was in 1989, six years after moving into the neighborhood as a renter, that Jackie bought her warehouse for an owner-financed $50,000, transitioning herself from edge dweller to homeowner and taking on the duties of an investor -- namely, protecting the investment.

That means battling those aspects of the neighborhood that detract from its pleasantness, and among the many such aspects that Jackie has so far identified are people who park in front of her house, people who cut up her cactus garden, people who walk up and down the street firing guns, people who litter, people next door who deal drugs out of their kitchen window as if it were a Jack in the Box drive-through, kids who steal checks out of neighbors' mailboxes, people who sniff glue on their front porches and allow their children to play in the yard with knives and hammers, people who try to break into the shop across the street and have to be chased away with a garden rake, drunks who mistake the bed of Jackie's truck for a good place to sleep, suspected gambling rings, suspected drug-running fronts and anyone who mistreats dogs.

"Heights has remarkable rise in values"
-- Houston Chronicle headline, June 23, 1929

Of course all neighborhoods, at some point in their evolution, have precisely the same problems. There are four clustered Heights neighborhoods: Houston, Woodland, Sunset and Independence. Think of them as brothers and you can make some sense of their dynamics.

Houston Heights is the eldest, founded as a speculative, if self-fulfilling, development in 1892 by Oscar Martin Carter, who came to Texas a millionaire owner of the Omaha and South Texas Land Company, purchased 1,765 acres of jungle and woodland northwest of the Allen brothers' 30-year-old settlement for $50 an acre (called at the time a "foolish and outlandish" deal), bought out two local mule-drawn railway companies, electrified the lines and ran them across White Oak Bayou at a cost of half a million dollars, and watched the Victorian manses rise from the forest.

Next came Woodland Heights, developed in 1907 as infill between Houston and Houston Heights, the latter of which was an incorporated city all its own until it was annexed in 1918.

In 1910, both Sunset Heights and Independence Heights were platted, the latter as Houston's first neighborhood developed specifically for black residence, and the former being where Jackie Harris lives.

Over the years, all four Heights neighborhoods have gone through the cycles that real estate goes through to arrive at their present incarnations.

Houston Heights is the slightly staid oldest brother who drank his way through an inheritance of genteel decay, until bottoming out in the early 1970s, and then staged an AA-worthy comeback to a today of historic home tours and enough crown molding to make you sick.

Woodland Heights is the overachieving second son, who's taken an afterthought collection of modest two-bedroom Craftsman bungalows and pumped the area so full of aggrandizing small-town-within-a-town hype that you can't buy one today for under $130,000, unless it needs major structural rehabilitation, and even then you'll need $110,000.

Sunset Heights was too young and unsophisticated to hang out with the snootier Houston Heights that cradled it on two sides, but it idolized Woodland, following its path like a mimic, set back perhaps several steps in the early 1970s, when it became nationally infamous as the killing grounds of Dean Corll, who operated a candy factory on West 21st Street when he and his accomplice Elmer Wayne Henley weren't busy murdering 27 boys, most of them from the neighborhood.

And Independence Heights, separated from its brothers in 1973 by the interloping Loop 610, is the odd man out, real-estate-wise. Its smaller homes have either been sloppily added onto and rebuilt so often -- or just plain been run down so badly -- that little of the neighborhood's original character can be discerned from the street. You can probably still get into something on the cheap side, but you'll be waiting awhile if you're waiting for company.

There are books dedicated to Houston Heights, but not much has been written about Sunset Heights in particular. Plat maps on file at the county courthouse show the boundaries as 23rd Street on the south, a notched line cutting up Cortlandt to Aurora and left to Yale on the west, 28th Street and/or Loop 610 on the north, and Link sloping into Airline on the east. Records don't indicate a developer, just a name: John Austin, the Texas pioneer whose original 1824 land grant encompassed the area.

Volume Six of The New Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association -- one of the few published references to the neighborhood, outside of newspapers -- identifies Sunset only as "a residential suburb and retail center" north of Houston Heights. It also points out that Sunset was named for its position on high land, which is true of all the Heights neighborhoods. (The 20-or-so feet the Heights had over Houston proper was important in the days when yellow fever regularly settled in the lowlands.) A post office operated there from 1915 to 1951, after which the "town" disappeared from the county highway map.

The most redolent detail is that "the townsite is the terminus of a trolley line." That would be O.M. Carter's trolley line, whose streetcars clacked gloriously and perhaps a bit smugly up Heights Boulevard -- at that time the widest and longest boulevard in the entire American South -- and then stopped and turned at what must clearly have been the end of the line.

"I don't know her, but of course I know who you're talking about."
-- James Fanning, president, Sunset Heights Civic Association, on Jackie Harris

There are people in Sunset Heights who remember when Cavalcade wasn't there, when the farmers' market on Airline was just woods, when there was still a public natatorium (when swimming pools were still called natatoriums) at the foot of Harvard Street within spitting distance of White Oak Bayou's alligators. One nice old lady remembers moving into the neighborhood in 1931, freshly married at age 17. She and her husband built a four-room home with a storefront attached and sold groceries there until he died. She remembers dirt roads, and then asphalt, and little bridges over ditches you had to cross to get to the houses.

"This block has changed a little bit," she says.
"There was quite a few Italians. A lot of them have moved away, and some of the Polish people have moved away, but we have some Czechs and some Polish. I go to Christ the King Church, and they've been there since I guess '29, maybe '28, and their congregation [is] a lot of Czechs and a lot of Polish people. And the Italians, as I said, and then the Spanish people, but I think the Spanish people are a little bit ahead of us now."

And she's heard the low approaching rumble of Y.U.P.s in S.U.V.s, but "Most of 'em I think is doing that along about 26th and 28th, like close to Yale and North Main and that area." They haven't spread yet even to the neighborhood's own east end. "Not yet."

Indeed, you can see them over closer to Yale in the upper 20s, some sprucing up their two-bedroom, one-bath American bungalows, others buying knockdowns for the land and putting up plywood Victorians and worse.

Sunset Heights Civic Association President Fanning has been associated with one particular Sunset Heights house -- first his aunt's, later his own -- since the age of five, which makes for about 50 years. His aunt and uncle moved out in '65, the same year the Astrodome went up, and after that, says Fanning, Sunset Heights "became more an area of transition, a neighborhood in transition. Certainly it became much more Latinized."

Now, as the pendulums swing, "It's getting whiter, as the lower-income people are driven out because of the high rents. The yuppies can't afford West U, [but] they can still build these nice Victorians because the lots are so much cheaper in the Heights."

Fanning says he's been seeing lots of rehabilitated homes, but lately he's also been hearing more bulldozers at work, knocking down structures to make way for fresh development. "I think we'll see more of that as the land becomes more valuable."

Which isn't to say that there are no longer Hispanics living in ghetto conditions in several areas of Sunset Heights. (There are.) Just that the competition is visible in increasingly dense rows of fixed-uppers, freshly painted, not in the historically likely white with black trim (those colors being always available and easy to match), but in designer combinations of Muirlands and Navajo White, Juniper and Bleached Ash, Sanded Oak and Natural Redwood, Rockport Blue and Ox Blood.

"Yeah, gosh, she was very bossy, especially to us, being the younger kids."
-- Jackie's younger sister, Lanie Harris

Jackie's dog is named Shredder, and he's a mixed breed -- pit bull and Great Dane -- and a real sweet, easygoing dog, too. Go ahead, threaten him.

Her front yard is mostly cactus, some of which is prickly pear grown from the droppings of a giant specimen outside the Alamo. In the back, which is impossible to see from the street, there's a courtyard with high plywood and aluminum walls and the shade of a mature banana tree. There's an old concrete holding tank in a corner hidden by river cane, and that's as good as a hot tub. The patio is surrounded with elephant's ear and night-blooming cereus and a large number of potted succulents. She could use a breeze back there, but the lush swelter is equally effective, in its jungle-ish way, at transporting its occupants.

Jackie's house used to have the words "Jackie's House of Weapons" spray-painted on the front, an affectation the neighbors eventually grew to understand as an artsy eccentricity. She sanded the words off recently, anticipating a visit that may yet come from a bank officer in connection with the big fat loan she hopes to take out for renovations soon. She's lost a few character points, but at least she's still got her cactus, except for the giant agave that some asshole dug up and stole in the middle of the night. Jackie drove around looking for it in someone else's garden, in someone else's pickup, but it was never found.

Someone's been slicing off pads of her prickly pear, too. Jackie suspects the patrons of the cantina next door. Those pads are called nopalitas, and once you've burned off or peeled off the spines, they're delicious boiled in strips and fried with eggs in the morning.

Jackie spent 12 years growing up in the Memorial area -- the fourth of seven children of a father who retired from the Army and went into the oil business -- but she had some childhood years in El Paso, too, and so the brown aspects of Sunset Heights don't bother her.

It's hard to talk about these things because, on the one hand, if you're white and you say the word "Mexican" in conjunction with crimes committed by Hispanics, you're easily presumed to be racist; on the other hand, if you're white and talk too much about how you appreciate the mixed ethnicity of a neighborhood, even as the arrival of more people like you drives out more people like them, you're easily presumed to be a pandering liberal thoughtlessly destroying another working-class neighborhood for the sake of your own adventurousness.

Jackie doesn't seem to worry about this issue much and bulls on ahead with her mission, which is to make her corner of the world a more decent place to live.

One thing that was in the way for years was the house directly next door to hers.

"That place was such a problem for so long. The little old lady that owned it, she was so nice, but when she died, the son was an alcoholic, and you wouldn't believe the people that moved in. I remember the first day, there's some guy sitting on the front porch, they're all Hispanic, they didn't speak any English, and this guy's looking to me like he just sniffed a whole shitload of glue. You know how they get that real crimson look? I mean they turn bright red and they get that look. And he's vomiting. And I go to what appears to be sort of a family, with an older man -- he was the drug-dealing guy -- and a wife, and then there was several children and a couple of young girls there in the backyard, and I said, 'Hey, there's someone in the front who's sick. He's throwing up. He's sick.' And they're like, 'Ha, ha, ha, ha! Thank you!'

"It took me, like, six weeks to get them to move out."
She called the cops incessantly. After three arrests, the glue-sniffing dealers threw a big party and moved out.

Her neighbor mocked her: "Gosh, it took you six whole weeks to get rid of them?"

The people who moved in next weren't much better, and Jackie decided to think long term. Check this out -- anyone can do this: She called the county tax collector's office and asked about the property's tax situation. She found out that the absentee owner owed more than a thousand dollars in delinquent taxes. She wrote a very simple letter to the city, informing it of this fact and requesting that it begin foreclosure proceedings on the property. The city did (a monthly list of foreclosed properties is posted in the lobby of the Family Law Center at 1115 Congress). Jackie showed up at the public city auction (first Tuesday of every month, same place). Jackie bought the lot for a $4,000 bid, had friends help her tear down the house and added it to her empire.

She didn't know until recently, by the way, that there was such a thing as the Sunset Heights Civic Association. "You should give me the number," she responds. "They might be able to help me on something."

"She's the guardian angel of the neighborhood."
-- Linda Kindall, co-owner of Kindall Auto Repairs on Yale

"When we moved in, it was 1990," says Lanie Harris, who lived on her older sister's very street for almost eight years before moving south to Houston Heights. "We would sit at dinner and you'd hear gunshots going off constantly, and after a few months of that, we just got kinda used to the gunshots."

You don't hear as many gunshots in the neighborhood these days, but predicting the landscape is still a matter of, as the convenience store chains say, location, location, location.

There were recently two houses for sale on 26th Street. They're both about the same size, but one has been redone and sports new wiring, central air conditioning and heat, a screened-in front porch, a remodeled kitchen and bathroom, fresh paint and refinished floors. The other has old wiring, skanky carpet over wood of indeterminate condition, window units and the rental-house gloss of years upon years of white latex paint gummed up on the window frames. The nicer house is the slightly cheaper of the two, in the mid-80K range, because its side fence backs up to the parking lot of another of Yale Street's cantinas and because it's catty-corner to the local liquor store. The three blocks between the two houses makes all the difference.

And according to real estate agents working the area, both would have been priced in the mid-60K range as recently as last fall.

Of course there's no way to attribute a rise like that directly to Jackie. There are also the matters of a booming economy, historically low interest rates and a newly magnetized downtown adding value to near-town real estate to claim their shares of the credit. And if the neighborhood is solidly in transition, that doesn't mean it has changed hands entirely. There are still veterans of the dirt road days living in the same bungalows where they were born. Middle-income working-class families, white and brown, still tend their yards on weekends. And there are still some freaky artist types.

Like Jackie, they're caught between a rock and a soft place.
On one hand, she says, "This is my home, I live here and I'm not going to just sit by and watch while someone turns it into, like, gang land. It's gonna go up, it ain't gonna go down."

On the other hand, she says, "One thing I've noticed about the yuppies that have moved into the neighborhood, I mean, they're useless, basically. They spend all this money fixing up these houses, buying these expensive properties and everything, and they move their little asses in, and then they sit there on their apathetic asses and don't raise a finger to do anything. They're afraid to do anything about anything. The reason there's so much crime is basically their fault. They'll sit there and watch something happen, hear a noise or hear a gunshot or whatever, and they won't even look out a window to see what's happened."

Jackie, obviously, has little patience for such passivity.
"Ever since I've been here, I've been running this block with an iron fist. I'm not saying I'm mean to anybody, but if I see them littering, parking bad, being drunk, disorderly, speeding through the neighborhood, teasing my neighbor's dog, anything that I don't think they should be doing, I'm going to go out there and say something to them. And I don't care if they're 70- or eight-year-olds, they're gonna get a little lecture, or have appropriate action taken, the police called or whatever. Chased off, in other words."

"I was always that kind of person. In your face. I'm not going to take any shit."

-- Jackie Harris

"Here, let's go around the block, and I'll show you what I'm talking about. If they're there, just keep walking and act like nothing's happening."

This is Jackie giving a problem-spot tour of her block, and she doesn't want to tip off her latest antagonists that she's onto them. We pass the cantina, on which she's "hammered and hammered and hammered." Now here's another commercial establishment, one that apparently hasn't caused Jackie any grief. Then we come to the used-car lot, which, in the middle of the weekday, is as she guessed it would be -- unmanned.

They work only at night, says Jackie, and even then, only some nights. There seems to be an oddly rapid turnover, the entire lot at a time, of pricey luxury sedans and all-terrain vehicles and vintage muscle cars. That's what first raised her suspicions. Then there were the abandoned dogs, beautiful Dobermans chained to a tire and left for days without food or water. They cried in Jackie's alley until she organized a liberation team from the neighborhood and got the pups to the humane society. Turns out the dogs had parvo and were put down.

There's an abandoned car in the alley now, and it goes without saying that this chaps Jackie's ass as well.

She knows the lot's proprietors. She met them when they came looking for their Dobermans months later, and the experience left her with the conviction that they are borderline imbeciles with a negligent streak and are somehow involved with the drug trade. Again, don't get her wrong: America's official War on Drugs out-imbeciles anything she's ever waved a machete at up in Sunset Heights. But to the extent they've proven to be bad neighbors, they're going to have to go.

Thus the barrage of phone calls -- to the Houston Police Department, to the FBI, to the mayor's Citizens Assistance Program, to the IRS, to the inspector general, to Councilman Felix Fraga.

She's especially pissed at Fraga on this day. She's been hounding him to get something done about the car lot, and she's seen so little action she's starting to think that the police are somehow in on it, maybe running a sting operation. It's frustrating, and Fraga hasn't been helpful. He left her a message this morning, and Jackie wants her guest to hear it. It's still on the answering machine tape, which sits beside a small table that holds a letter addressed to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

Jackie can't help but offer feedback. It's just the way she is. When the Food and Drug Administration approved Olestra, Jackie got the agency's director on the phone and bitched him out something fierce.

She finally cues the tape to the Fraga message, and there it is, a half-muttered, thoroughly noncommittal "hope" that everything "turns out okay."

The car lot, so far, is a Jackie failure. But here on another nearby corner is a repair shop, also unmanned. Jackie says she's friends with the landlord, but they had sort of a falling out when he started renting the place out to supposed Asian gangsters who used it as a betting parlor. Again, undocumentable. But Jackie called the cops out there enough times, and the now-empty shop no longer disturbs her.

And she's sure she'll get the cantina and the car lot too, one way or another. She's got all the bravery and all the nerve and all the phone numbers she needs.

Besides, Jackie's an artist, and it's fair to think of her homestead as a work in progress.

"I'm not just concerned with my little corner anymore. Now I've started to do things like I'll call in dangerous buildings to Neighborhood Protection, littering complaints on this whole area, because I'm getting sick of just the idiots that sort of don't care and are bringing down the whole neighborhood....

"My friends are all kidding me because it's like I'm trying to take over. 'I want that property, I want that property, I want that property.' I'm cleaning them all up."

Jackie scans her empty lot with pride. "I'm not kidding you, I took that house from them. It took two years. I manipulated the whole thing."

And if her block, here in her transitional neighborhood, is still peppered with bad neighbors among the good, well, that's not going to discourage Jackie.

"They," she promises, "will go, too."

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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